Peshawar’s Zoroastrian cemetery vulnerable to land grab

THE boundary walls of the historic Parsi graveyard located in Peshawar Cantonment are under threat of encroachment as it has become a safe haven for drug addicts and junkyard for the people residing around it.

A local resident claiming anonymity told this scribe that some individuals, apparently the gunmen of land grabbers, late in the night walked up to the graveyard and began removing bricks of its boundary walls and made off along the uprooted bricks.

“According to the Cantonment Board’s record, the place bearing plot number 323/CB under 514 survey number has been allocated for the graveyard of Parsi community and the person involved in any kind of its land transaction will be responsible for her/his own loss. If notice of this plunder is not taken, the graveyard will be encroached upon because no member of the Parsi community seems to be left behind in Peshawar to take care of the property,” he warned.

The resident said that over 100-year-old graveyard had many cemented graves with slabs inscribed with brief bio-data of the deceased. It was considered to be the last symbol of the Parsi community once happily living in the pluralistic and multilingual Peshawar since mid-19th century, he added.

The resident said that the land grabbers first turned such abandoned piece of land into a safe haven for drug addicts and then asked locals to throw every kind of dirt and garbage there so that the dumpsite could go out of the sight of the officials concerned and ultimately come under their control.

The Karachi Zarthosti Banu Mandal (KZBM), a community welfare organisation, states in its 2015 report that it had conducted the first complete survey of Pakistan’s Zoroastrians in 1995.

Conducted under the supervision of Toxy Cowasjee, sister-in-law of the noted columnist late Ardeshir Cowasjee, the survey found that 2,831 Parsis lived across the country — 2,647 in Karachi, 94 in Lahore, 45 in Quetta, 30 in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, eight in Multan, and seven in Peshawar.

Akhundzada Arif Hasan, a noted historian, told this scribe that Peshawar had a cemetery, belonging to the local Zoroastrians (Parsis), who lived there as traders. He said that it should be noted that those were not indigenous Zoroastrians, but migrants from the Indian community further south. They were residents of Indian state of Gujarat and spoke the Indic Gujarati language at home, he added.

He said that Parsis were brought and settled in Peshawar by the British colonial authorities for the purposes of forming a solid backbone of trade. The Parsis being renowned for their scruples and integrity and their support for British and European culture to which they rapidly took once India came under the British rule, he added.

About the cemetery, Mr Hasan said that the fact that they did not dispose of their dead in the traditional Zoroastrian way, and the reasons thereof should be apparent as it would be contrary to the sensibilities of the surrounding Muslim population as well as the British administrators, who had made the Parsis reside within the exclusive “whites only” British military cantonment areas for reasons of safety.

He said that Parsis normally ran sophisticated businesses, dealing in Western goods and technologies and they were also employed by the British on those jobs that could not be trusted to other “natives” or for which the latter were clearly unfit.

Tracing out the history, Mr Hasan said that the oldest grave there dated to 1890, whereas the last was from 1993, its occupant incidentally being an old woman teacher at the Christian missionary school. He said that he used to study in the school.

The graves are about 50, and the cemetery is part of a large compound allotted to the Parsi community for this purpose. This compound had full residential facilities for a caretaker, which can be seen, and a lot of the land is still unused.

However, the historian said that over the past 25 years or so, Pakistan’s once numerous and thriving Parsis had steadily migrated to western countries like Canada and Australia for obvious reasons. “So now there is none left in Peshawar. The inscriptions on the graves are mostly typically in English and Gujarati but some are also in Avestan, some have combinations as the graves are generally well tended, and in relatively good condition, even now,” he added.

“This cemetery is located on the southern edge of Peshawar Cantonment, on Sunheri Masjid Road. It is fronted by the usual tacky shops and shacks, typical of ramshackle Pakistani bazaar. Once I went there and saw a sentry posted there. He wanted to know why I was there and what made me interested in those graves. Once convinced, he excitedly showed me around, as though these were the graves of his own forefathers,” said Mr Hasan.

An official of Peshawar Cantonment Board, when contacted, said that a portion of the boundary wall had been damaged while the cemetery was still intact as no one could encroach upon it. He said that relatives of the deceased settled either in other cities in Pakistan or abroad still showed up for paying respects to their near and dear ones buried there.

“No mafia is involved in damaging the cemetery boundary wall. Care is being taken to keep a vigilant eye on the visitors. Local residents have been directed not to throw garbage inside the cemetery,” said the official.

Dr Jal Fram Jee, a noted dental surgeon said to be the last of the Zoroastrian in Peshawar, who died in 1903 at the age of 90 was also buried in the cemetery. The official said that late Dr Fram Jee ran his clinic in Peshawar Qissa Khwani Bazaar and was quite popular among the local residents.

Published on The Dawn